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Poor defense dooms DC yet again on the road

Soft early goal was too much for United to overcome

Two weeks ago, a resurgent D.C. United side traveled to Seattle and shocked the Sounders with a 3-2 victory at Qwest Field in front of a national television audience. The result marked United’s first road victory of the season and suggested that Curt Onalfo’s side had turned a corner following a dreadful start to the 2010 campaign.

Unfortunately for the Black-and-Red, it seems that corner has led to a cul-de-sac, at least when it comes to MLS competition. United have gone winless in the six league games since that win in Seattle, scoring just two goals and allowing nine, and Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake surely constitutes the worst setback of the lot.

United surrendered a soft early goal, then missed several opportunities before a self-assured Real side buried the dagger with two late counterattacks to prolong D.C.’s four-year run of futility on the Wasatch Front.

The boost provided by newcomers Branko Boskevic and Pablo Hernandez—and the return of Chris Pontius from injury—was eclipsed by another spate of defensive breakdowns. Goalkeeper Troy Perkins looking culpable on two of RSL’s three tallies, particularly Álvaro Saborío’s 13th-minute opener, a goal that was keyed by the Costa Rican’s clever dodge of the D.C. offside trap.

“The first goal was a bad goal to take—a mixup on defense, a bad call by the referee, and it could’ve been saved, I think—there’s three bad plays there that caused the first goal,” said D.C. left back Marc Burch, who made his first start of the year on Saturday. “We did well to fight back and try to get one and had a few chances in the first half, and just couldn’t get one. Then we switched to go a little more offensive towards the end and it bit us in the ass this time. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Playing with a confidence and fluidity that might have reminded United fans of their club’s bygone days, Real sat on their lead and absorbed the visitors’ pressure, then exploited the spaces granted to them by D.C.’s increasing desperation. Jamaican veteran Andy Williams was particularly influential, and Nelson Gonzalez capped the evening with a sterling finish to run the champs’ home undefeated streak to 20 matches.

“I think we had a pretty good game plan going in. We were going to force it wide and if you look at their offense, I’m pretty sure they went down the middle almost the entire time,” Burch said. “We didn’t do a very good job of accomplishing our game plan and they took advantage of it. That’s their strength, playing down the middle, and they have some high quality players in there with good touches, good holding the ball. They’re a real solid team.”

Injuries have decimated the options on offer for Onalfo, especially in defense. But the fact remains that United have now allowed 18 goals in nine road matches, offering just one more bit of grim reading in a season full of frustration.

“It’s tough to build any chemistry at all when you’re changing the back four all the time, but that’s what we’ve had to deal with,” said Burch. “I think we can all do better. Sometimes you just get beat. And I think a couple of times, we just got beat individually tonight.”